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The Emergence of Italian Pentecostalism: Affectivity and Aesthetic Worship Practices

Italian-American congregations were fraught with regionalism. A growing number of the Italian Presbyterian congregation were immigrants from Tuscany in central Italy. Longtime members on the other hand were from the regions of northern Italy. Reluctant to observe the denominational requirement for membership, the Toscani left the Presbyterian Church and formed an independent congregation. In 1904 they rented a store-front on W. Grand Avenue known as “the Mission.”[3]

Anderson identifies this Italian congregation with the Holiness churches; a common transitional phase for Pentecostals raised Catholic. He notes the movement of its members from Roman Catholicism and conventional orthodox denominations to a transitional Evangelical phase and a pre-Pentecostal sojourn with the radical outer fringes of the Holiness movement. The penchant of early Pentecostals was consistently toward more enthusiastic religious groups.[4] The Grand Avenue Mission was characterized by authentic evangelical fervor and spiritual ardor. Though growing and mobile, they were forced to relocate continually and remained without formal affiliation. According to Louis De Caro, the combination of isolation, internal division, and both religious and spatial instability, left the Italian Evangelical community in a fragmented state, preparatory to their transition to Pentecostalism.[5]

Italians were introduced to Pentecostalism through the ministry of William H. Durham. Their reception of the Pentecostal message was embodied in the hallmark Pentecostal experience of Spirit baptism. On September 15, 1907, an exceeding number received the baptism at the Grand Avenue Mission. Italians were readied to start a work of their own.[6]

The Grand Avenue Mission expanded among contadini (peasants). Contadini came from the socioeconomically disadvantaged regions of the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy). The American Bureau of immigration distinguished between Southern Italians (Iberics) and northern Italians (Keltics); a distinction reflecting a nationwide trend that regarded the Iberic southern race as morally, intellectually, and even physically inferior to their northern counterparts. Fewer and fewer northern Italians lived in the urban centers of Chicago as acculturation pushed them away from inner-city slums in search of better living conditions. Showing little regard for the pretentious Iberic-Keltic racial divide, the Mission welcomed contadini. They were also impartial regarding religious affiliation, opening their doors to Protestants and Catholics alike.[7] Rapid growth forced the congregation to move their headquarters to West Erie St. Chicago. Here they adopted the name Assemblea Cristiana (the Christian Assembly).[8] By 1920 Italian Pentecostals lived in every major US city.[9]

The Assembea Cristiana planted churches in Canada, South America, and Italy. Francescon founded congregations among the Italian diaspora in Argentina and Brazil.[10] Ottolini was among the first to return to the homeland with the Pentecostal message, holding services in northern Italy and Sicily. The first to carry the work to Italy was Giacomo Lombardi, sowing the seeds of the Pentecostal movement among relatives and acquaintances. In 1929 the Ministry of the Interior reported the presence of Pentecostals in 150 localities in Italy and at least 25 public places of worship.[11]

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Category: Church History

About the Author: Paul J. Palma, PhDc, is a Professor of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry at Regent University and a Partner Correspondent at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Paul has authored or contributed to several books and has been published in a number of national and international journals. He and his wife, Gabrielle, have three children. For publications by Paul, visit his LinkedIn page. Facebook.

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